• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

How Donald Trump provides cover for Asia's strongmen

Chinese President Xi Jinping after being reappointed for a second term on March 17, 2018. Photo/Getty Images

By attacking critical journalists, Trump provides a veneer for the democratic shortcomings of strongmen.

Strongmen around Asia looking to stifle criticism could hardly hope for a more powerful ally for their cause than Donald Trump, who relishes labelling unflattering media coverage as “fake news”.

The US President’s catchphrase is reverberating around the halls of increasingly autocratic power in the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. And that’s just to name the ostensible democracies. In China, where Xi Jinping can now remain president indefinitely, the Government doesn’t have to pay even lip service to a free press.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Across Southeast Asia, leaders with authoritarian tendencies have turned Trump’s favourite phrase into a weapon to wield against opponents and critics. If it’s okay for the leader of the free world and the bastion of democratic values, why should it not be okay for them?

Take a look across the region. In the Philippines, the Government revoked the licence of Rappler, a news website that firebrand President Rodrigo Duterte had repeatedly accused of running “fake news”.

“You went overboard,” Duterte, who once said journalists weren’t exempt from assassination, told a Rappler reporter at a press conference. “You’re not only throwing toilet paper; you’re throwing shit at us.”

During a meeting in Manila at the end of last year, Duterte called the journalists present “spies”. Trump laughed.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak is hoping to be re-elected in the next few months despite being embroiled in a huge corruption scandal.

His Government is now trying to push through a new law to crack down on what it calls “fake news”. But how would it define fake news? Well, that would be “anything that is not substantive, and [is] dangerous to the economy and security of the nation”, said one of Najib’s ministers.

In neighbouring Singapore, the Government is also turning fake news into a national security issue, including it alongside cyberterrorism and chemical attacks as a potential threat to the city state. And in Cambodia, where elections are due to be held in July, Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose application to have the main opposition political party dissolved was upheld by the country’s top court, has shut down the independent papers and radio stations that have, in his opinion, made stuff up.

“I think Donald Trump is right for creating an award for fake news,” Hun Sen, who is trying to hold onto power after 33 years in office, said recently. “Even in the US, there are such kinds of journalists until the President created the fake news awards for such media – fakes, cheats, and liars.”

Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, has been disdainful of both democracy and the press since he seized power in a military coup in 2014. In early January, he showed up at a press event in his offices and plonked down a cardboard cut-out of himself. To the journalists waiting with questions, he said: “Ask him,” pointing to his stand-in.

Prayut’s Government just launched a new smartphone app to allow people to report “fake news” they find on the internet.

The US, of course, is in an entirely different situation from these fragile democracies in Southeast Asia. Trump’s accusations have only caused journalists to stand up even more for their reporting and dig even deeper. American journalists are not being cowed.

But what Trump has done is provide a veneer for the democratic shortcomings of strongmen in the Asian region. He’s made it seem acceptable to personally attack critical journalists and to chip away at one of the pillars of democracy. To use another word favoured by the American president: Sad!

This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.